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Twitter gets real

More and more farmers like Jeff Barlow are learning how to get faster, 
sharper agronomic answers from social media. Here’s how


At first glance, the list of today’s social media sites looks like a collection of spelling mistakes. It’s grown way beyond Twitter and YouTube, and now the list stretches to 100 and beyond.

You might have heard of Google+, LinkedIn and YouTube, but what about Plaxo, Bebo, Hi5, IRC, FMyLife and Tumblr?

Facebook and Twitter may still be the popstars of the social media universe, but they’re hardly alone. More and more options are out there, and individuals around the world are exploiting them.

But what about Canadian farmers?

More especially, what about Canadian farmers who want to know what that weed is in their corn, or how to diagnose that disease in their wheat, or how to kill that insect in their soybeans?

It turns out farmers have a real incentive to learn more about social media, because it can help you save your most valuable commodity — your time.

That’s why Twitter is growing in membership, usage and value among farmers, as well as among agronomists, input suppliers and extension personnel.

Generally, Facebook is seen as the more “social” of the social media, with a broader approach almost like mainstream media. Its agricultural reach however is limited to specific users — or “friends.”

Using twitter on the farm

Twitter on the other hand provides more of the speed and connectedness that farmers favour, and as long as you’re willing to learn how to navigate it, Twitter may have much more potential for meeting your needs.

Jeff Barlow, a corn and soybean grower from the Binbrook, Ont. area in the Niagara region, has been a Twitter user for about 18 months, ever since he purchased an iPhone. With Twitter, Barlow says he can access information he needs to help his operation, whether it’s a production-related issue or one relating to marketing.

For Barlow, who manages 4,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat along with his father, Earl, the ability to do all of that without losing time is a huge plus.

Barlow, for example, used to start his day listening to Ontario government agronomist Peter Johnson’s Crop Line 15-minute telephone updates. Now he spends that 15 minutes checking his latest tweets.

Why? In the first place, Johnson like many other agronomists, is tweeting more and more of his information, so Barlow can get his daily Johnson fix at a glance. Plus, he can instantly re-tweet and get even more information on critical issues.

Barlow also follows David Hooker from the Ridgetown campus of the University of Guelph, as well as farmer-economist Philip Shaw from Dresden, Ont. From the former, he can get research updates, as well as timely and valuable production information. From the latter, Barlow looks for a lot of re-tweets, including international news and other items of interest, many of them farm related.

“There’s also a lot of information about marketing, and some of that might be a farmer in the States somewhere, saying, ‘My basis just went up 20 cents,’” explains Barlow, adding that it might spark a similar tweet from a farmer closer to home, say in Michigan. “I’m thinking, if the basis went up in these areas that aren’t very far from home, maybe that could affect our basis, and if I have to sell wheat, maybe I should hold off another week to see if that’s a trend that’s moving.”

Sharing information

Robert Larmer also looks to Twitter as a time saver. A Facebook subscriber since 2003, Larmer is a forage specialist with DuPont-Pioneer amd has been using Twitter for about a year, which he finds is better value both for time-use efficiency and for the information he can glean from it.

“It’s much easier to go on when you have a couple of minutes, check quickly, and get back off,” Larmer says.

Larmer uses Twitter to share his own insights plus materials from Pioneer, as well as to keep in touch with ag developments. But the benefit goes further than that, he says, because if you’ve got more questions, you can get in touch.

“Social media have changed the way that people want to absorb their news,” Larmer says. “They don’t just want to be given the information, they want to be able to interact with the information that they’re given.”

Asked if it can be used to help make production-related management decisions, Andrew Campbell gives Twitter an enthusiastic thumbs up. Campbell is a trained journalist and host at FreshAir Media (www.thefreshair.com). He’s also a dairy farmer and partner in the family-run operation near Appin, Ont.

Campbell also supports Twitter as a quick and easy entry point to a wealth of information, which is perfect for farmers whether they are in their office, in the combine or standing in the middle of the field. There’s less waste, both in time taken and in sharing messages.

“Twitter is more accessible for people but one of the benefits is that you have no time to ramble,” Campbell says. In other words, for him, one of the common complaints about Twitter is actually a positive. “On Twitter, you have a limit for how much you can write before it’ll just cut you off. That’s one of the biggest reasons so many people have adopted it. You can quickly scroll through good information, because you’ve decided what information you want to receive, and it’s two sentences at most, and then you close it and go on with your day.”

What Campbell likes even more is that much of the information has been vetted in real-life situations. One example relates to a barn renovation he’s working on, including the need for more storage for feed.

“I’d heard about these bags for silage corn before — I’d never seen it other than driving by, so I didn’t know how they worked,” says Campbell. “I posed the question: ‘Does anybody bag corn silage, and what do you think?’ I received dozens of responses, from tips on what to do and what not to do, to the majority of people saying, ‘Yes, we’ve done it,’ or, ‘Yes, the neighbour’s done it, and they liked it.’”

Getting started

The good news is that getting started on Twitter is easier than many may think, although you should also know there’s a learning curve, say Barlow, Larmer and Campbell. You’ll get better with practice.

“Tweet things that people want to read, things that are of value to other people because that’s what’s going to get you followers,” says Barlow. “That’s what leads people to follow you and that’s how you get the message out more broadly.”

On Twitter, it’s easy to sign up, at which point it’s up to the individual to determine what types of information they want to access or share. Some farmers want news and production tips while others are in it for directions on marketing or management decisions.

“Like anything, it also helps if you have someone that you can ask questions to,” says Campbell, who blogs on his website and also conducts workshops on how to use social media. He recently helped his father sign on to Twitter, including entering his email address, a user name and password. “Then it’s just a case of showing him that there’s a box to search, and if you want to follow a person, you hit the ‘follow’ button, if you want to reply to a person, you hit the ‘reply’ button. It’s not that difficult and day by day, if you use it regularly, you’ll get into the habit of just how it works.”

Also, don’t be afraid that you’ve left it too late, so you’re too old for social media.

Pioneer’s Larmer looked at the ages of people who follow him and those he follows, and the range runs from 15 to 65 years and older. So, although usage of social media might be higher among the young, there isn’t a brick wall anywhere.

Says Larmer: “Are you more likely to see a younger farmer on Twitter or social media? Yes. Is age a barrier to people using it? Absolutely not.”

The drawbacks

For farm users — and for non-farmers too — there’s a growing unease about links between the Internet and advertising, and it’s just as much of a concern on social media. But it’s a cold truth: the days of ad-free web pages are virtually over.

Besides, the bigger fear may be spam.

“There is a little bit of spam now, where there used to be not much,” says Barlow. “A farmer can try to sell a combine or to buy a plow and find a neighbour who has one. But that’s how Facebook started out, and it’s turned into this advertising phenomenon and I believe Twitter will turn into the same thing.”

Larmer is a little more optimistic about the future of advertising on Twitter, noting that some links are already starting to appear but not at an overwhelming frequency.

“They show up every time you go on, the fourth or fifth tweet down in your feed will be one that a company has paid to put there,” Larmer says. “We’re starting to see that but it’s not at the point where it really bothers me yet. But if there’s one of those every other tweet, then it’s going to.”

The “forever” threat

Of course the other downside to social media is its longevity. Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter or one of the other platforms, a comment or insult can’t be “unsaid.” Social media postings are very hard if not impossible to retract. They can be edited but there is no telling how many people might see the original before it can be revised or pulled altogether.

“You do have to be careful with what’s said, because once it’s posted, it’s forever retrievable, so something has to be considered as potentially hazardous if released to the public,” says Barlow, who usually asks himself a couple of questions before posting. “Is it really worth it? Are there possible repercussions?”

Larmer adds his voice to the chorus on “pondering before posting.” Tweeters need to think about what they’re going to tweet beforehand, he says. One wrong statement and the damage could be lasting.

“You have to be prepared that you’re sending it out to your best friends, but you could be sending it out to your enemies,” says Larmer. “Once it’s out there, it’s out there. If you make a mistake the first time, chances are someone’s got it saved.” †

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